I visited Oakley Down south of Woodyates on Friday 20 April 2012, taking a bus from Salisbury, camera in hand to capture the site where Aldred pitched his tent with Bishop Ælfsige on 10 August 970, a Wednesday. I was glad I had picked up an Ordnance Survey Explorer Map (118 Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase, for those inclined to follow in my tracks), since I lacked any electronic gadgetry to access GoogleEarth, online maps, or GPS. A compass might have been useful, but in the event I did not get lost (Girl Scout training, although breaking the rule to always take a buddy). The weather was a bit rainy and cold. I picked up a good deal of farm mud (washed out and dried before I passed through U.S. Customs officials on the lookout for UK hoof and mouth disease). At the end, I got caught in a thunder shower and despite rain gear was quite wet with squishy tennis shoes (trainers) by the time I caught the 1:00 bus back to Salisbury, but happy to have a lot of pictures and impressions of Ackling Dyke and the Oakley Down burial mounds.
What follows are my thoughts relative to Aldred, with pictures to illustrate.
I got off the Salisbury to Blandford bus at Pentridge, south of Woodyates, but did not want to walk along the A354 with traffic whizzing by and little edge to the road. So, guided by a kindly fellow passenger who disembarked with me, I walked east into Pentridge, an early medieval hamlet with a Celtic place name (Pentric) that would have been inhabited in Aldred’s day, although I did not stop to explore it. I walked south to the manor farm and found the public bridal path heading back west toward the A354, aiming for the intersection where the Ackling Dyke Roman road diverges from the highway and becomes visible. I thus approached the old and new roads from the east.
In the picture above, you can see in the distance the A354 and a burial mound, but nearer is the line marking Ackling Dyke.
I then hazarded a short walk along the A354 in order to find the Oakley Down Neolithic burial mounds that I knew from GoogleEarth and other online images stood between the highway and the Roman road’s original path. Walking on the roadside as well as on Oakley Down requires careful attention to footing, since the ground is uneven and full of tussocks, not to mention lots of animal holes and burrows (I did not see any of the residents, though).
At Oakley Down itself, accessible via Dorset public paths and stiles, I found the ring mound more impressive than the raised mound from which Aldred might imagine a dragon emerging. The tallest raised mound fits the classic image of a barrow:
However, the ring mound seen from the top of the raised mound catches the eye for its regularity and mystery. It’s outer ditch is large, the inner surface relatively flat.
On a slightly raised part of the ring mound’s inner surface, I found a curiously shaped heavy stone. All along the paths I took through the fields, I saw golf ball sized white, irregular stones with smooth grey interiors: chalk-encrusted flint, reminding me that these are chalk downs. The large chunk on the mound (which I left in place after photographing it) appears to be one of those odd fossilized stones. At first I thought it was a man-made plaster object, with its odd protrusions. But its weight and the evidence of flint where bits had broken off suggested a natural formation. If anyone has other suggestions, please let me know. In any case, it was not what I had imagined Aldred finding–rather, I wanted him to find an inscribed stone.
I then walked up and down Ackling Dyke, clearly visible even without the modern fencing that isolates it from the surrounding fields. It is pretty impressive to see the line of the Roman engineer running straight across all terrain (looking to the southwest in this image).
As I walked north on Ackling Dyke to the point where it converges with the A354, I looked for the area to the east on the maps that noted a rectangular Roman earthwork, a spot I thought likely for the bishop and provost’s camp. Along the east of the road are two wooded areas, the northern one labeled Salisbury Plantation and containing, according to the Ordnance map, several more barrows of various shapes. Since I had time toward the end I did wander into Salisbury Plantation, but left in a rush before finding evidence of mounds because of thunder, followed by rain and hail (!). Whether the area was more, or less, heavily wooded in Aldred’s time is hard to say. But there were lots of pheasants in the wood and undoubtedly other sources of protein.
In any case, I did locate the supposed Roman earthwork, but it was hard to visualize a rectangular shape in the weedy hummocks I saw. I photographed it from four sides at knee level, but only one side seemed to evidence a straight line (here looking west).
Moreover, clearly visible across the Roman Road to the west and too close for comfort was another mound, so I began to doubt whether Aldred and the bishop would have camped that close to a mound. But then again, the mounds are everywhere along this entire stretch of Ackling Dyke, so pretty unavoidable. Perhaps they would just face the other way?
Overall, things were much closer from this ground view than what I experienced using the bird’s eye view of GoogleEarth. Looking back from the Roman earthwork, Oakley Down seemed less grand than I perhaps imagined it initially. In my next post, I will explore Old Sarum and Stonehenge, also on the Ackling Dyke Roman road and therefore potentially on Aldred’s path.
Ackling Dyke seen from the Pentridge path, near where the Roman road merges into the A354. At that point is the Yew Tree garage, whose owner kindly let me stand inside out of the rain while waiting for the bus (which needs to be flagged down for this stop).
Ackling Dyke looking northeast, woods on the right.